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Two men in a boat

Robert Gore-Langton on a stage adaptation of the Erskine Childers classic Riddle of the Sands

Robert Gore-Langton on a stage adaptation of the Erskine Childers classic Riddle of the Sands

The Riddle of the Sands was published in 1903. It was an instant bestseller and has never been out of print since. It’s the story of two young Englishmen who, while sailing off the German coast, unearth a fiendish plot to invade Britain. The book is often cited as the first ‘factional’ spy story, one that launched a genre. With its mass of authentic, verifiable detail it set the trend for Fleming, le Carré and the rest. The book includes maps, charts and tide timetables. It’s part patriotic thriller, part advanced sailing course; the explanations of the theory and practice of inshore sailing are perhaps its chief glory, fascinating even to those of us who don’t know a mizzen from a marlinspike.

In the book we meet Carruthers of the Foreign Office, bored of his life in London’s clubland, who takes up an offer to join his old acquaintance Davies on his yacht in Germany. As instructed, he arrives with a prismatic compass, a No. 3 Rippingille stove and a pound of Raven Mixture shag. He is appalled to discover the Dulcibella is a tiny scruffy boat with no crew, but he soon learns how to help handle her and basks confidently in Davies’s masterly seamanship. Their adventures around the East Frisian Islands regenerate his spirits (initially Carruthers is as stale and complacent as Britain herself) and culminate in the thwarting of the baddie Dollman and the German invasion plan.

The author, Erskine Childers (1870–1922), knew every inch of the German and Baltic coast having himself sailed there in his own small yacht. As well as appealing to the pink gin and blazer set with its Boy’s Own-type adventure, the novel caused a frightful stink politically, as its intended aim was to advertise Britain’s total unpreparedness for war. In its wake, British Naval intelligence sent out two officers to explore the same stretch of coast. They concluded that for high-quality information the Admiralty would do better to consult the novel rather than its own useless charts.

The joy of the book is that it is totally immersed in the shoals, eddies and treacherous sands of those lonely islands. There was a 1979 film of the book with Michael York, memorable only for its haunting score. But there’s now a two-man theatre version of this yarn at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London (until 22 May). It’s a low-budget affair — two actors sail an empty packing trunk! — and it arrives after a packed-out tour of village halls, community centres and plastic-chair venues on the south-east coast. It’s presented by Chalkfoot Theatre Arts, a tiny but heroic company based in Margate, gallantly supported by Kent County Council. The show was enthusiastically endorsed by The Spectator’s Dear Mary as never having a dull moment.

By coincidence, the Criterion Theatre, just around the corner from Jermyn Street, is currently home to the long-running The 39 Steps, a larky comic spoof based on John Buchan’s 1915 novel. They are in a way twin books. Both are weirdly prescient, both involve spy rings, both have sulking heroes who are bored of London: Buchan’s Richard Hannay is Carruthers’s counterpart. But unlike The 39 Steps, which is a laugh a minute on stage, Riddle of the Sands is more seriously dealt with, says Philip Dart, director of the show and adaptor of the book. They are staging it as good old storytelling theatre with minimal scenery and two actors working like dervishes.

‘We aren’t doing a send-up. It’s not like 39 Steps, which is one gag after another. But it wouldn’t suit this story,’ says Dart. ‘I was amazed at its power over audiences: it’s been the most successful show we’ve ever done. And of course all the sailors who come along think it’s wonderful. We’ve had a number of people who’ve told us they’ve followed Childers’s route as described in the book. Our version loses some of the technical sailing stuff and concentrates more on the relationship between Carruthers and Davies.’

What of course the show naturally leaves out is its oddball author. And in him there is surely another play waiting to be written. He was a great imperialist and Anglophile who changed his tune and ended up in front of a firing squad. Childers was of Anglo–Irish descent and learnt to sail in Wicklow harbour near where he was brought up. He was educated at Haileybury and Cambridge and became a Clerk at the House of Commons, the long holidays allowing him to sail in Europe. He joined up at the outbreak of the Boer war and learnt a healthy respect for the Boers and possibly a sneaking sympathy for their cause. In 1903, the year his novel came out, he married a Boston Brahmin, Mary Osgood. Their wedding present from her parents was a 50-foot ketch called Asgard.

During the first world war, he worked as an intelligence officer in the Navy and won the DSC. He even came up with a reverse plot from Riddle of the Sands to invade Germany. But it was Irish Home Rule that became his great passion — a cause he devoted himself to for the rest of his life and which branded him a traitor. Childers crossed the line when he started gun-running, using his boat to collect 800 Mauser rifles from a German tug that he and his wife delivered to waiting Republicans in southern Ireland. Two years later the guns would be used in the Easter Rising of 1916. In the gruesome civil war that followed the establishment of the Irish Free State, he threw in his lot with the new IRA in favour of total independence. It was a bad move for him. His house, where he was in hiding armed with a pistol (a capital offence) that Michael Collins had given him as a souvenir, was surrounded by Irish troops. He was marched off to Dublin for court martial.

This extraordinary, angular English gent (the late Corin Redgrave would have played him brilliantly) never complained about his lot. He shook hands with every member of the firing squad and then charmingly invited them to come closer: ‘It’ll be easier for you, lads.’ He insisted that no grudges on either side should follow his death. (His son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, would become the fourth president of Ireland in the 1970s.)  His lasting legacy is a novel that is a fine read — and now a show — even for those to whom the appeal of sailing is a mystery if not a riddle.

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